Understanding the mechanisms of soil water repellency from nanoscale to ecosystem scale: a review

Jiefei Mao, Klaas G.J. Nierop, Stefan C. Dekker, Louis W. Dekker, Baoliang Chen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

58 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: Soil water repellency (SWR) can interrupt water infiltration that may decline plant growth and potentially trigger soil erosion. Until now research has been mainly focused on understanding the mechanisms of SWR at different scales by observation and modelling studies. Materials and methods: This review systematically discusses the possible mechanisms at different scales of the occurrence and persistence of SWR from nanoscale to ecosystem scale. Results and discussion: Soil characteristics are strongly related to the severity of SWR, particularly in soil organic matter and soil moisture. The presence of a higher amount of hydrophobic organic compounds and lower soil moisture content lead to higher water repellency, suggesting that the interaction at the nanoscale between organic compounds and water molecules primarily determines the persistence of SWR. The repeated alternation of drying-wetting process largely modifies the relationship between water molecules and soil particles that impacts the possibility of SWR from hydrophilic in wet condition to hydrophobic in dry condition. Within ecosystem scale, vegetation and microbes are original sources of SWR-inducing compounds influencing the distribution and prevalence of SWR. Nevertheless, the challenge of global climate change, drought and warming can increase SWR. Extreme SWR induces more serious runoff and overland flow that is enhanced by intensive precipitation. Conclusions: We conclude that understanding the interaction of water molecules and organic compounds at soil particle surface is essential to understand SWR at the nanoscale. Expanding the mechanisms of SWR from nanoscale to a larger scale is fundamental to improve the remediation of soil pollution and mitigate global change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171–185
JournalJournal of Soils and Sediments
Issue number1
Early online date4 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • Ecosystem
  • Nanoscale
  • Organic compounds
  • Soil hydrophobicity
  • Soil moisture


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